NATO’s “Steadfast Noon” Nuclear-Strike Exercise Begins

October 19th, 2021 - by North Atlantic Treaty Organization & Hans Kristensen / Federation of American Scientists & NATO & Lee Ferran / Breaking Defense

NATO Launches Annual “Deterrence” Exercise

North Atlantic Treaty Organization

 (October 18, 2021) — NATO kicked off its annual deterrence exercise on Monday (18 October 2021), with dozens of aircraft from across the Alliance practicing the defence of NATO’s European Allies. The week-long exercise, called “Steadfast Noon”, is taking place over southern Europe, and involves aircraft and personnel from 14 NATO countries.

The exercise is a routine, recurring training activity and it is not linked to any current world events. It is hosted by a different NATO country each year. Steadfast Noon involves training flights with dual-capable fighter jets, as well as conventional jets, backed by surveillance and refuelling aircraft.  No live weapons are used.  This exercise helps to ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective.

At the NATO Summit in June, Allied Heads of State and  Government declared that “the fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression”. They also stated that “given the deteriorating security environment in Europe, a credible and united nuclear Alliance is essential.” At the same time, Allied leaders emphasised that “NATO has a long track record of doing its part on disarmament and non-proliferation.  After the end of the Cold War, NATO dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and its reliance on nuclear weapons in NATO strategy.” 

NATO Nuclear Exercise Underway With Czech and Polish Participation

Hans Kristensen / Federation of American Scientists

 (October 17, 2017) — NATO reportedly has quietly started its annual Steadfast Noon nuclear strike exercise in Europe.

This is the exercise that practices NATO’s nuclear strike mission with dual-capable aircraft (DCA) and the B61 tactical nuclear bombs the US deploys in Europe.

In addition to nuclear-capable aircraft from Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, local spotters have also seen Czech Gripens and Polish F-16s. The United States will likely also participate with either F-16s from Aviano AB in Italy or F-15Es from RAF Lakenheath in England.

The non-nuclear aircraft from Czech Republic and Poland are participating under NATO’s so-called SNOWCAT (Support of Nuclear Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) program, which is used to enable military assets from non-nuclear countries to support the nuclear strike mission without being formally part of it. Polish F-16s have participated several times before, including in the Steadfast Noon exercise held at Ghedi AB in Italy in 2010.

This year’s Steadfast Noon exercise is taking place at two locations: Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium and Buchel Air Base in Germany. Both bases store an estimated 20 US B61 nuclear bombs for use by the national air forces. This is the second year in a row that the exercise has been spread across two bases in two countries. Last year’s exercise was held at Kleine Brogel AB (Belgium) and Volkel AB (Netherlands). The multi-base Steadfast Noon exercises are often coinciding with or preceding/following other exercises such as Decisive North and Cold Igloo.

There are currently an estimated 150 B61 bombs deployed at six bases in five European countries (see figure below).

Click on image to view full size.

Weapons were previously also deployed at RAF Lakenheath but withdrawn sometime between 2004 and 2008. Weapons were also withdrawn from Araxos AB (Greece) in 2001. Consolidation (but not complete withdrawal) also happened in Germany and Turkey (for these earlier changes, see my report from 2005).

In addition to the countries with nuclear-capable aircraft — Belgium, Germany Italy, Netherlands, Turkey (note that the status of Turkey’s nuclear role is unclear, but it’s F-16s are still nuclear-capable), and the United States, there will likely be participation from other NATO countries under the SNOWCAT program.

NATO is adjusting its nuclear posture in reaction to the new adversarial relationship with Russia. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is expected to reaffirm the continued deployment and modernization of US non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe. But there is a push from hardliners inside NATO to increase the readiness and planning for the non-strategic aircraft. Others say it is not necessary. Last month several B-52 bombers forward-deployed to Europe in support of NATO and many see that as sufficient signaling at the nuclear level. Overall, moreover, NATO’s reaction to Russia is focused on providing non-nuclear defense to Europe.

In a broader context, the nuclear exercise has not been officially announced and NATO is very tight-lipped about it because of the political sensitivity of this mission in mainly western NATO countries. The secrecy of the exercise is interesting because NATO only a few weeks ago complained that Russia was not being transparent about its Zapad exercise. Seems like both sides could do better.

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

NATO’s Nuclear Exercise ‘Steadfast Noon’ Taking Place in Europe


 (October 18, 2021) —NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attended the alliance’s “annual nuclear exercise” on 16 October at Volkel air base (southern Netherlands), NATO announced in a news release, raising a corner of the veil on an open secret.

“This exercise is an important test for the Alliance’s nuclear deterrent,” he said, in the statement. “It is a routine, defensive exercise. And it is not directed against any country. The purpose of NATO’s nuclear deterrent is not to provoke a conflict but to preserve peace, deter aggression and prevent coercion. In an increasingly uncertain world, our nuclear forces continue to play an important role in our collective defence”, added Stoltenberg.

He was accompanied by the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), US General Tod Wolters, and the Dutch Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld.

The annual nuclear exercise, known as “Steadfast Noon” (although NATO does not specify its name), brings together more than 50 aircraft from several allied air forces and is hosted by a different NATO country each year. It practices NATO’s nuclear strike mission with dual-capable aircraft (DCA) and the B61 tactical nuclear bombs the US deploys in Europe. There are currently an estimated 150 B61 bombs deployed at six bases in five European countries ((Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey).

The Volkel base is equipped with F-16 fighter-bombers. The presence of nuclear weapons, never confirmed or denied by the authorities in The Hague, was revealed in 2013 by former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers.

This year, training flights are taking place over parts of Western Europe and the North Sea. “Aircraft involved do not carry live bombs”, NATO stressed.

Non-nuclear aircraft also participate in the exercise under NATO’s so-called SNOWCAT (Support of Nuclear Operations with Conventional Air Tactics) programme, which is used to enable military assets from non-nuclear countries to support the nuclear strike mission without being formally part of it.

In September an open letter in support of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was signed by 56 former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and defence ministers from 20 NATO member states, as well as Japan and South Korea. All of these states currently claim protection from US nuclear weapons and have not yet joined the treaty. The letter was sent to the current leaders of these states. The co-signers included the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and two former NATO secretaries-general, Javier Solana and Willy Claes.

Russia Suspends Military NATO Office After Espionage Accusations 

Lee Ferran / Breaking Defense

WASHINGTON (October 18, 2021) — Russia announced today it is suspending its military liaison mission to NATO in retaliation for the alliance kicking out eight Russian diplomats it claims were really spies.

In announcing the move, the Russian foreign ministry alleged NATO’s “policy towards Russia is becoming increasingly more aggressive,” and called the expulsion of its officers, as well as the downsizing of the liaison mission “unfriendly gestures.”

Whether or not NATO is being more aggressive towards an increasingly brazen Moscow, there’s no doubt that recent weeks have been tense between the US-led alliance and Russia. NATO’s accusation that eight members of the Russian mission were undeclared Russian intelligence officers on Oct. 6 came just a day after NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said he spoke to President Joe Biden about NATO “step[ping] up” to help smaller nations that wanted to join, regardless of Russia’s objections.

 “The whole idea that, you know, it’s a provocation to Russia that small neighbors join NATO is absolutely wrong,” he said then. “That’s the provocation — that anyone is saying that.”

One of those aspirant nations, Georgia, hosted US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin today in Tbilisi as he observed military exercises by Green Beret-trained Georgian forces. Making no mention of Russia, Austin said such exercises would “help create capabilities that your country needs to help strengthen its defenses.”

Also today, NATO launched what it called its “annual deterrence exercise” in southern Europe dubbed “Steadfast Noon,” which involves aircraft and personnel from 14 NATO nations. (In its announcement, the alliance said the exercise is “a routine, recurring training activity and it is not linked to any current world events.”)

But it was another military exercise that had allied observers nervous earlier this fall: the quadrennial Zapad exercises, in which tens of thousands of Russian troops performed maneuvers and blew a lot of stuff up in Belarus. The real worry was not the exercise itself, but what Russian troops and heavy equipment were doing lingering in the Moscow-friendly nation after the exercise concluded.

It doesn’t appear that tensions will subside anytime soon, as the mutual dismissal of officials could only hinder clear communication between Russia and the alliance.

After all, the soon-to-be-shuttered Russian military liaison mission’s role, according to NATO, is “keeping military channels of communication open” and “support[ing] NATO-Russia dialogue.”

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